Gyotaku Prints

Catch, Print, Eat!

By Liz Tosoni

For those of us who love to catch and cook fish and appreciate their beauty, here's one more very cool thing you can do before devouring them.

Trigger fish printGyotaku prints make great gifts. Frame them, or make them into wall hangings (using dowels at each end), cushion covers, pillow slips, place settings, or bags. Printed T-shirts are always a hit.

The Japanese call it "gyotaku" — "guyo" means fish, "taku" means rubbing — and all you need is a freshly caught fish, some paints, and a plain T-shirt or a piece of fabric to make something truly beautiful for yourself or your home. Tom and I learned how to do it from some San Diego boaters we'd met when we were exploring in the Sea of Cortez on Feel Free. Caryn and Gary spotted the large triggerfish and parrot fish we'd just speared, which we were taking back to our boat for dinner, when they told us we should really print them first.

"Print them?" Tom and I asked in unison. Caryn and Gary invited us aboard Windflower, offered to teach us, and we've been enjoying this pastime ever since.

Photo of Tom holding a trigger fishTom holds our dinner, a beautiful trigger, ready for printing.

Gyotaku (guh-yo-tah-koo) was first developed in Japan in the 19th century, before the invention of photography, as a fisherman's method of recording the size and species of his catch. Fish boats were supplied with ink, brushes, and paper. Freshly caught fish were painted with black sumi ink and covered with rice paper, which was carefully pressed down and removed to produce an exact-size replica of the fish. Once the print was completed, the fish could be washed and prepared for market or a meal. By using this technique, fishermen could both record and eat their catch. Today, fish prints are so accurate that certain Japanese fishing-tournament winners are determined by gyotaku prints. Here's how to do it yourself. First, assemble the following:

  • Fish!
  • Sumi ink, india ink, or acrylic (water-based) paint
  • Plain T-shirt or piece of plain fabric (or rice paper or mulberry paper, Caryn's favorite. She carries rolls of mulberry paper on board, specifically for gyotaku. It's easy to work with and makes lovely prints.)
  • Paintbrushes, different sizes
  • Paper towels and/or newspapers
  • Containers for paint and water

Next, wash the fish using a sponge and water. Table salt, lemon juice, or even rubbing alcohol can be used to help remove slime from the fish body. Dry thoroughly using paper towels or newspapers. Extend fins and dry them, too. (See Figure 1.) I use water-based, nontoxic acrylic paint so the fish can still be consumed after printing (after washing the paint off, of course). It's inexpensive, easy to use, and found in regular paint and hobby shops. Add water to thin it. Japanese sumi or india ink is commonly used.

Position the dry fish so it looks good to you. Use toothpicks or straight pins to help fan out fins. Pieces of tissue or paper towel can be stuffed in the gill area and orifices to prevent fluids from leaking and contaminating the print. Apply ink or paint using a brush, or a small roller for larger fish. Avoid applying too much ink, which causes blotching or blobbing.

Use a piece of paper towel or a Q-tip to clean off the ink on the eye, as you want the eye to be white on the print. Paint that in later. Now, lay your rice paper or fabric on the fish, trying not to get creases in it. Keep material even and centered. T-shirts can be tricky as you have to make sure only one side gets the paint, so another pair of hands is useful. (See Figure 2.) Once the material has made contact with the fish, avoid moving it around as you could get smears or a double print. Rub the material gently. Use your fingertips for smaller fish and for areas that form the outline of the fish. (See Figure 3.)

Remove the material, let the paint or ink dry, and there you have it! (See Figure 4.) You can use the same fish over and over again, and do the painting and rubbing (pressing) over and over, until you're happy with the results. You can also use the same fish on the same fabric or T-shirt, several times, to give the impression of a school of fish. It takes practice to get a good fish print, but over time, your prints get better and better.

Once you have a decent print, you might want to paint it with some more color to give it definition and interest. Artist-quality paints are easier to work with than cheaper ones, as they blend well, come in a wide assortment of colors, and are more vivid. Good-quality brushes make a difference. (See Figure 5.) Be sure to take a photo of the fish so you can look at it later to get the colors right when working on your painting. Wash your prints by hand, using soap and cold water; sumi ink, india ink, and acrylics are all color-fast.

Time for dinner! Once you finish printing, rinse the paint off the fish with a sponge and water. Sumi and india ink and acrylics are all water-soluble, so with a little scrubbing, the fish should clean off easily. Once it's paint-free, filet in the usual way, grill or pan fry, and enjoy! Aboard Feel Free, we have a rule: If we print it, we eat it. 

— Published: June/July 2015

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